Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Hull House Nut Cakes - a recipe from 1912

This is a special recipe to me... when my husband and I returned from our honeymoon, we brought back a ton of dates with us (we were in Morocco and they were seriously the best, most moist, delicious dates I had ever had).. After eating them every way we could think of, and giving them to anyone who would take them, my mother-in-law suggested we use them to make an old family recipe, her dad's favorite date cookies. It is my understanding that her paternal grandmother, Grace Elizabeth, born in 1884, made a mean batch of these cookies...
She also had awesome accessories.

The recipe that was passed to me had only a list of ingredients, with the instructions to combine in order given and bake. Hoping to get an idea of what the resulting cookie would look like, I wondered if anyone had made these cookies lately, on, say, another blog, so off to the Google I went. I found ONE instance of this recipe on the entire internet.

From The Book of a Thousand Recipes, 1912. Arranged for the River Forest Women's Club, River Forest, IL
If it weren't for Radcliffe College's Culinary Collection preserving this piece of culinary history, and Google digitized books, this and all the other recipes in this book could have essentially disappeared. And when you make these cookies yourself, you will understand why that would have been a terrible thing, indeed.

And so, I present, an important piece of our shared culinary heritage, an heirloom recipe modernized for today's baker.

Hull House Nut Cakes
a recipe from 1912


1 lb whole dates (medjool or another sweet, fleshy variety)
1 tablespoon water
1/2 lb walnuts
1 c butter (room temperature)
1.5 c sugar
3 eggs (room temperature)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 lb flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Makes over 8 dozen small cookies (a lot... but they go fast!)

Pit dates. 

Pulse dates in food processor until chopped, and just beginning to pull together, stopping well before they turn into a paste. Pour water over dates, give them a quick stir, and set aside.

Chop walnuts in food processor until medium to fine. This is a small cookie, so you don't want very large pieces of nuts.

Sift flour. Add baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. Stir until well combined.

Beat butter until creamy.
Add sugar and beat until light in color.
The recipe has a high sugar to butter ratio - so it will still be grainy when it is time to add the eggs.

Add one egg at a time, beating each until fully incorporated.
Beat in vanilla extract
Fold in dry ingredients with a spoon.

Add dates and walnuts. Fold in, ensuring there are no oversized clumps of dates, but do not over-stir.

Put in refrigerator for 30 - 60 minutes to rest batter.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Put parchment on baking sheet. Grease with butter. Drop cookies by the spoonful, making each a little smaller than a golf ball, leaving some room between for cookies to spread out.

Place cookies in oven for 15-20 minutes until bottom is lightly browned and top is beginning to be golden brown. To ensure even cooking, rotate trays after 5 minutes.

Cookies will still be soft when removed from oven. Transfer cookies to cooling trays when sturdy enough to be moved.

The resulting cookies are that perfect combination of crispy edges with a moist, chewy interior.

They are definitely best the day-of, but they kept well in a tin for the next week.

Dates are so uncommon in modern baked goods, it was interesting hearing people guess what they thought was in the cookies!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Apricot Ginger Simnel Cake

[Americans in particular] may ask, "What's a Simnel Cake?" I did. As did anyone who asked me what I was making for Easter, after I told them what was for dessert.

I love holidays. I love the traditions associated with them, the traditions that shape our memories. They weave scraps of years together into a single memory, which we may call "Easter", or "Fourth of July", or "New Years Eve". The events on that day of any particular year may fade away, but the traditions endure, giving us a sense of security and meaning as that day comes again.

We hosted a family holiday dinner for the first time this Easter, and I wanted to mark the event with a new tradition of our own. My maternal grandmother was half English. As a result, most of our standby Easter dishes are traditional English ones (the lamb, the mint sauce, the hot cross buns), so I wanted to serve a dessert that would fit with the rest of the menu.

Lo, the Simnel Cake. A traditional English fruit cake with a playful, endearing topping of eleven almond paste balls, and a colorful history that is up for grabs. I made ours for Easter, but I think it would make a really charming Mother's Day gift as well.

There are loads of Simnel Cake recipes out there, but I wanted to create one with my own twist. Using traditional proportions of equal parts butter, flour, and sugar, with twice as much dried fruit, this recipe offers an apricot and ginger flavor profile, using three kinds of ginger (candied, fresh, and ground) and two kinds of apricot (dried and preserves).

I opted to decorate the Simnel Cake in the classic style, with eleven balls of marzipan and a ribbon tied around it... The decoration is completely unique, but sweet and traditional. For Americans who have never seen a Simnel cake before, the look of it is rather curious, as well. I like the idea of being curious about dessert. It builds a healthy sense of anticipation throughout the meal. ;)


For the cake:
5 oz dried apricot
2 oz currants
2 oz golden raisin
2 oz candied ginger
1 oz candied orange peel
6 oz flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp dried ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
pinch salt
6 oz softened butter
6 oz caster sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
3 eggs
1.5 oz fresh ginger, finely minced
Apricot preserves
White of one egg

For soaking the fruit:
4 fluid oz bourbon
4 fluid oz orange juice
Warm water

For the almond paste:
9 oz blanched almonds
9 oz caster sugar
1.5 oz fresh ginger, finely minced
1 teaspoon almond essence
3 eggs, beaten

(Please note: unless otherwise stated, ingredients are measured by weight, not volume. Proportions are important in this dense cake, and measuring by weight leaves less room for error. Plus, with this many ingredients, it's easier to just whip out the scale and get down to it. If you don't have a scale - let me know. I'll do my best to provide volume conversions for the ingredients.)

This cake can be made over a period of three days, if you want to space things out. I have broken the steps for this recipe down into 1) Preparation, 2) Baking, and 3) Decorating.

Step 1: Preparation is everything.
Chop apricot, orange peel, and candied ginger to raisin-size pieces. Place apricot, currants, golden raisin, candied ginger, and candied orange peel all into a bowl. Add bourbon, orange juice, and enough warm water to fully cover the fruit. Soak overnight (or, if not soaking overnight, microwave for 5 minutes and let sit for 15 minutes).
Note on the candied fruits - I used Jacques Pepin's candied orange peel technique, to make the candied peel because it's quick, it's not fussy, and who doesn't love listening to Jacques Pepin cook? I considered candying my own ginger, but honestly, the Ginger People make great products that basically eliminate the need for this step. I used their Organic Crystalized Ginger.

Make almond paste: Process almonds in food processor until very finely ground. Add caster sugar and pulse until mixed. Use spatula to ensure ingredients are evenly incorporated. Add ginger and almond essence, pulse. Add eggs, a little at a time. Run processor between each addition. Stop adding eggs when mixture comes together, pulls away from sides of food processor, and has formed a pliable dough. You will likely not use the entire quantity of eggs. Knead almond paste until consistency is smooth and moldable.  Separate into thirds, shaping two of the sections into round disks, and wrap  each tightly in cling wrap so it doesn't dry out. Refrigerate.

Step 2: Bake the cake.
Preheat oven to 300. 
Take a round disk of almond paste out of refrigerator to bring to room temperature.
Line a colander with a paper towel, and place soaked fruits in colander to drain.
In a bowl, whisk together sifted flour, baking powder, spices, and salt. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy and light in color.

Beat in molasses. Add one egg at a time to creamed butter and sugar, and beat in until smooth.
Gently stir in dry ingredients.
Pat soaked fruit with tea towel or paper towel to squeeze out a little more moisture.
Add fruit and minced ginger to batter, and gently fold together. Set aside.

To roll out the almond paste filling: Tear a square of parchment paper off the roll. Place the cylindrical part of your baking pan on the parchment paper and trace around it with a pencil. Flip the paper over, so the pencil mark doesn't transfer onto the almond paste. Take one third of the almond paste shaped into a round disk, and center it in the circle you traced. Roll it out to be just a bit smaller than the circle you traced, rotating the parchment as necessary and occasionally flipping the paste over to keep it smooth on both sides. Roll gently and evenly so the edges of your almond paste don't crack too much. (While appearances don't matter as much for the filling, this is good practice for the cake topping.) You can set the cylindrical part of the cake pan down over the almond paste to make sure it is the right size. Lay cling film over the top of the almond paste so it doesn't dry out.

The ginger in the almond paste smells absolutely lovely as you roll it out.
You want to roll it out just a little smaller than the circle you traced.. This allows the cake batter to rise around the edges as it bakes, ensuring a uniform crust around the sides.
Assemble your cake pan, grease it, and line with parchment paper (Use this trick!!). Grease the cake-side of the parchment (Use butter, not nonstick spray. This cake is worth the effort.)

Tip half of the batter into cake pan. Smooth flat.

Gently lay your round of almond paste into cake pan on top of batter. Press gently to smooth it out. Ensure almond paste is centered over batter so batter can rise around edges of almond paste while cake bakes.
Tip or spoon remaining half of batter into cake pan. Spread it with a spatula to make it even with a slight dip in the center (this is so it rises evenly).

Bake at 300 degrees for 2 to 2.5 hours. Watch to see if top is getting dark. If so, loosely cover with tin foil. check cake for done-ness with a skewer every 10 minutes after 2 hours until cake is done. Remember, almond paste center will leave some residue on skewer, but no batter should stick.
Remove cake from oven and let cool on wire rack for 15 minutes.

Remove cake pan and let cool until no longer warm.

Wrap cake tightly with tin foil until you are ready to decorate. Cake can sit for up to a week; the bourbon in the fruit will mellow with time.

Step 3: Decorate!
Bring the remaining almond paste to room temperature by taking it out of the fridge about an hour before you need to use it.
Place the cake on a baking sheet, so you will be able to move it from counter to broiler easily.
Warm up some apricot jam so it can spread easily with a spoon. (I use Bonne Maman preserves for anything like this. It's readily available in most grocery stores, as well as reliably flavorful and fantastic. It kindof makes me want to make eating toast and jam my full time job.) Generously spread your jam across the cake. You want the apricot to be a standout flavor, so don't be shy.

Roll out the second disk of almond paste using the same method as above, but in this case, roll it all the way to the edges of the traced circle.
My rolling pin is glowing with almond oil. I'm pretty sure making this was like a spa treatment for my usually floury rolling pin.

Now, use the cylindrical part of the cake pan to neatly trim the edges. Center the cake pan over the almond paste round, and firmly press down. This makes the perfect size and shape topping.

Gently lay the almond paste round over the cake, lightly pressing to smooth out any bumps. Soften any ragged edges on the almond paste by pinching or tucking them underneath.

Flute the edges of the almond paste. It is not stretchy like pie crust, so you will want to do this gently. I used the thumb and forefinger of my left hand under the edge, while pressing down with my right forefinger on the top.
Repeat this all the way around the cake to achieve a nice, even ruffle.

Beat your egg white until it's a little frothy. Use a pastry brush to glaze the top of the cake with the egg white.

You are going to toast the almond paste decoration in two stages; otherwise the almond paste balls will get too dark, because they are closer to the broiler.
Turn on your broiler, and let it warm up. Put the cake under the broiler.

Use an oven mitt to rotate the cake under the flame as it browns, so the top is evenly, lightly, toasted. Alternatively, use a chef's torch.
Take the cake out.

Take the remaining third of almond paste, and make 11 equally sized balls with it. I recommend rolling one to the size you like, weighing it, and using that weight to make the rest. Put a dab of apricot jam on the bottom of each ball and stick them around the cake, equally spaced. Brush almond paste balls with egg white.
I used a run-of-the-mill windproof lighter to burnish the ruffled edges a bit as well.
Make a little tin foil hat (see photo) to protect the already toasted part of your cake.

Put the cake under the broiler again, ensuring the almond paste balls are evenly toasted.
Simnel Cake gets a bad case of the fancies for Easter Dinner.

When researching this recipe, I came across some other gorgeous Simnel cakes. Check these out, and look on your own as well before you decide how to decorate yours.
Source: BBC Food

Source: Glanbryden: The Cottage Bake-house
Source: Meanderings Through My Cookbook

Source: goodtoknow Recipes

Note: I have never used almond paste in this way before, so I wanted to familiarize myself with the technique. I made extra almond paste, so I could practice working with the almond paste on a smaller scale before making the real cake. I used a tuna can to approximate a miniature cake, and a metal baking cup to practice toasting the almond paste under the broiler.